Stories of Excess

Turn on the Bright Lights, now experiencing a well-deserved fifteen-year anniversary celebration, is an album that could definitely while away a wistful witching hour or two. I don’t mean this to sound like bragging: though I was one of its composers, I now feel more like a confused participant, or a survivor of PTSD.

Turn on the Bright Lights, fifteen years on

There’s a moment on Rumours, Fleetwood Mac’s glistening, forty-million-worldwide-selling easy listening masterpiece, when, in the span of a few seconds, a simply brilliant soft rock record pivots into strange and unfamiliar territory. Around three minutes into “The Chain,” things seem to be coming to an end. Then, all of a sudden, an ominous, post-punky, ten-note bass line bursts out of the abyss, ushering in a lugubrious assault of vocal harmony and jangly guitar ostinato. If I listen closely, I can even hear The Cure, circa Seventeen Seconds.

That gloomy, existential moment—easily the darkest on an otherwise rigorously sunny album—catapults Rumours out of its Carter-era, mega-rock environs into classic status. (A ’70s folk band capable of appealing to your garden-variety punk is a band that has transcended genre.) It occurs right in the middle of the album’s track listing, a dark black hole around which the rest of the record swirls. That “The Chain” is the only song on the album that gives the entire band songwriting credit doesn’t seem coincidental: it sounds like everyone has come together for a serious showdown.

Cracked-out ignominy is more often than not the logical counterpoint to a band’s ascent to global fame, and for Fleetwood Mac, Rumours was the beginning of a seemingly inevitable end. Their story, like so many others, ends in clinics and breakups (though, thankfully, not suicides nor lawsuits). Even without the drugs, there was enough toxic drama in the studio for more than one feature-length documentary: divorce (the McVies), breakups (Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham), and intragroup hookups (Nicks and Fleetwood himself). It was a great soap opera—a new twist on the usual tales of drugs and groupie sex.

How did these people get out of bed, much less compose one of the greatest albums of all time? I can’t speak for their morning rituals, but according to the common wisdom on the recording process, all that strain from the soap opera somehow filtered into the songwriting, kind of like make-up sex. The recording sessions were enhanced by the band’s interpersonal tension—the studio as deep-core mining operation. With enough energy, there were diamonds of raw potential to be found. It’s a persuasive explanation, yet I still have to marvel at the feat.

There’s a level of perversity here that should feel alienating. We wouldn’t tolerate excess or irresponsibility from our airline pilots or nurses, but the rules have always been different for rock music. If anything, so the wisdom goes, the insanity aids the songwriting (and promotes sales). HBO’s short-lived TV series Vinyl is a telling example of the phenomenon: its subject matter was not so much the musical ingenuity of the gifted rockers at the center of the show as the shenanigans that happened outside their rehearsal rooms. Watch the commercial for the show and you’ll see lots of tattooed, bejeweled demigods making epic deals and crashing into furniture. The controversy makes for grander drama than the actual music.

This isn’t, of course, how most people actually experience rock music: you hear riffs and bass lines, not lines of coke. For those of us who were introduced to the experience before the rise of the MP3, the act of putting on a record, especially during the witching hours of the night, felt loaded, ceremonial, even ecclesiastical. (My own Sunday masses with The Cure included incense). These sophisticated rites could not be performed without quality music: I’m aging myself in saying this, but the golden era of the great rock record, now a dead art form, reigned between Led Zeppelin’s first record and The Cure’s Disintegration. I didn’t listen for controversy, though—the music was enough.

But the stories of excess persist for a reason—it’s not just HBO blowing smoke up the consumer’s ass. As a co-founder of the band Interpol (I played bass with the band from 1998 to 2010), I can’t help but agree—albeit reticently—with those who prefer to inflate rock music’s mythos and mystique over its songwriting. Because judging from my own personal experience, it seems that Rumours worked as well as it did precisely because of all the drug-and-sex-addled insanity that accompanied the making of the record.

When I think of the sound of my old band’s first record and the conditions under which it was recorded, I can’t help but think of Rumours, whose picture-perfect collection of sweet anthems and roaring triumphalism stands in stark contrast to the X-rated circumstances of its recording (except, of course, for those few dissonant seconds of post-punk incursion). Turn on the Bright Lights is the tonal opposite of Rumours. But like Rumours, it is also decidedly not a party album, and also very much at odds with the circumstances of its creation.

The decision to record Turn on the Bright Lights in Bridgeport, Connecticut was insane (we lived in New York City, for crying out loud), but the Metro-North trips on the New Haven Line did offer certain advantages. During one early-morning ride, I found myself scraping at the tattered remains of a carefully folded paper envelope holding the last dregs of a spot of damp cocaine I’d purchased the previous evening at a club. (It was really the same evening, since I hadn’t slept.) I assumed that by the time these moist clots of white powder found their ultimate destination in my nostrils, they’d been cut many times, and noticed that the final mix included some pocket lint and candy bar crumbs. The early sun and the train conductor made fishing for the final hit an act of such clandestine finesse that it would have made a 19th-century French pickpocket proud.

Other behavioral idiosyncrasies from that time: the rationing of condoms, and my all-starch diet, which—along with the daily alcohol and cocaine intake—contributed to a certain, shall I say, skin tone (think The Munsters—colorized, but only sort of). In other words, none of this felt all that glamorous, though it was certainly decadent. Yet I’m almost positive that a few hours after that train ride, I laid down a bass line on Turn on the Bright Lights that’s led to many accolades and gushing emails from friends and fans in the intervening decade and a half. Causation or correlation? It’s an old question. I’ll likely spend the rest of my life figuring out the answer.

I wasn’t the only monster, of course: our singer, whose lyrics and vocal timbre give that first record of ours a special place in the indie-rock pantheon, was so prone to his vodka cocktails that you can hear the tinkle of ice cubes leaking into the mic during one of our song openings. He and I, although not the best of friends, made for a compelling tag team of depravity during the band’s early days.

Turn on the Bright Lights is not a perfect rock record; it’s perfectly imperfect, which feels like a great second-place finish. Yet like Rumors, the album needed to be saved from a certain abyss: an album can’t be produced on cocaine and vodka alone. I imagine that Fleetwood Mac was kept afloat by producers, engineers, and managers determined to get to the end of the process. In the case of Interpol, we benefitted greatly from the half-decade age vantage of our drummer and the managerial acumen of our guitarist: our band’s more sober portion dragged the weight of its alcoholic other half.

Turn on the Bright Lights, now experiencing a well-deserved fifteen-year anniversary celebration, is an album that could definitely while away a wistful witching hour or two. I don’t mean this to sound like bragging: though I was one of its composers, I now feel more like a confused participant, or a survivor of PTSD. I’ve lived to tell the story of a plane crash that almost took place, and I’m still figuring out how I managed to pass the flight exam and get into that cabin in the first place. With the passage of time, my stories of behind-the-scenes ribaldry have come to feel, above all else, like examples of ineptitude and inexperience. Fifteen years on, I’m grateful to the forces that prevented me from taking down that beautiful plane.

One thing the last seven years of civilian post-rock star afterlife have taught me is that behind every great performance there’s an equally great, counterbalancing performance anxiety, itself cultivated in early trauma, and most likely of the familial variety.1 Put aside the controversy, and you’ll no doubt see the less flattering reality of a tortured soul compensating for lost love at home. My own case is no different: my childhood was your typical unhappy mix of parental abandonment and psychological abuse. (I’ll save the gory details for another piece.) The entertainment industry—a relentless business devoted blindly to its bottom line and unconcerned with the humanity at the core of its “talent”—is a perfect later-stage simulacrum of parentally induced degradation. It’s unsurprising, then, that so much drama and excess always seem to swirl around pop stardom.

The anniversary of Turn on the Bright Lights is a painful affair for me: I feel like I’m watching my kids graduate from college, but I haven’t been invited to the ceremony. Neither the band nor their label has reached out to me for any official Turn on the Bright Lights-related business, which is surprising. Even though today I remain, for better or for worse, estranged from my former bandmates, 25 percent of that album’s DNA is mine. At the same time, I’m not worried about Interpol’s legacy: I know it’s in good hands, and the anniversary will flourish without my input. My decision—as an artist and a member of a collective—to leave a band like Interpol, with all of its triumphs and failures, was one of the single biggest decisions of my life. I will stand by it without regret until my last breath. But there’s nothing like a round number to kick up a thousand anguished “what ifs.” I can hear them buzzing around in my head, like a horde of wasps.

For now I take enjoyment in the little things, like when I reveal my identity as former bassist of the band Interpol and confront the wide-eyed gaze of someone who has just experienced an unexpected brush with fame. It might be vain to admit this, but these encounters make me feel like a Clark Kent who has let someone in on his old Superman days. What these moments mean is that many people have loved and listened to Interpol without ever once knowing what the gents in the band looked like. They don’t care about the scandals or the mythmaking—they’ve let the music do the talking.

Somewhere along the way to a great rock record you need some controversy. If one were to remove all of my extracurricular activities from the history of Interpol’s early days, I can say without hyperbole that we’d be remembering the band differently—perhaps a little less passionately. At the same time, were I to do it all over again, I might stop to think about those fans and consider, before snorting that next clotted, sooty combo of baby powder and Colombian extract, that a timeless, infinitely more sensitive enterprise like a Rumours, or a Turn on the Bright Lights, might just be entertaining enough by itself to sustain my curiosity for the rest of my life.

  1. If you haven’t already, please watch Asif Kapadia’s documentary Amy for a somewhat oblique but powerful account of the related phenomena of toxic parental cultivation and larger-than-life performance. Or just think of the Jacksons. 

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